A new think tank will promote a foreign policy that includes a greater reluctance to assert military force

By Bryan Bender, Politico

June 8, 2016

Sen. Rand Paul's vision of a less militaristic foreign policy got little traction in the GOP primaries, but some of his key backers are joining forces with associates of billionaire Charles Koch in a fresh effort to steer Washington away from interventions in overseas wars.

They're launching a think tank, the Defense Priorities Foundation , that seeks to elevate national security policies that are decidedly out of the mainstream of Republican - and even some Democratic - foreign policy thinking, featuring a significantly greater reluctance to assert military force or even impose sanctions on nations such as North Korea. The related Defense Priorities Initiative, meanwhile, is designed as the organization's advocacy arm, which will seek to lobby Congress. 

Among the architects of the nonprofit are William Ruger, a Navy Reserve officer who is the vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute. The institute is backed by the billionaire businessman and donor, who along with his brother David has poured millions into conservative political causes that champion lower taxes and lighter regulations. 

"We are just getting started," said the new think tank's president and founder, Edward King, formerly the CEO of Concerned American Voters, a super PAC that backed Paul's failed bid for the GOP nomination. "But one of the main things we want to accomplish is to expand the debate on foreign policy, which we think has been sorely lacking, especially for the last 10 or 15 years."

"We are seeking support," he added, calling Ruger "a tremendous asset." He declined, however, to reveal the think tank's financial supporters.

The think tank is also the brainchild of several acolytes of Paul, the Kentucky Republican who rose to prominence criticizing American military operations in the Middle East and the expanding use of armed drones in particular. While his White House bid failed, he remains a leading voice in Congress for pulling back U.S. military forces from global missions.

King believes Paul's message is gaining currency in the country, if not in Washington. "Senator Paul has been a thoughtful voice on these complex issues," he said. "We need thoughtful discussions that really look at not just the first-order consequences but the second-order consequences of our military involvement around the world."

The group's communications director, Eleanor May, was the national press secretary for Paul's presidential campaign. The think tank has also enlisted some of D.C.'s leading libertarian foreign policy thinkers and several conservative pundits, as well as a retired Army officer and Afghanistan veteran, Daniel Davis, who was perhaps the most famous military whistleblower of the past generation.

The group insists it wants a "strong, dynamic military." But it says America's reliance on military force in recent years to solve its foreign policy challenges has backfired. The armed forces must be used "more judiciously to protect America's narrowly defined national interests," it posits, "and promote a realistic grand strategy prioritizing restraint, diplomacy, and free trade to ensure American security."

Davis, a retired Army officer who served two tours in Afghanistan, published a 2012 report that accused the top military leadership and Congress of misleading the public about the progress of the longest war in American history. Davis was swiftly attacked by his colleagues and banished to a desk job.

"I joined Defense Priorities because they seek to challenge the status quo of our current militaristic foreign policy," Davis told POLITICO. "They advocate policies that begin with a recognition of the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be, which lines up precisely with my own opinion."

Among some of the outfit's first publications is one arguing that the definition of "imminent threat" used to justify military operations is far too broad and misunderstood - and fuels abuse of military power by the president.

"By definition, an imminent threat ought to be one which is immediately about to happen: Think foreign troops actively marching toward our border, or a nuclear missile ready to launch and aimed at New York City," writes Bonnie Kristian, a columnist and consultant at Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian group that grew out of the presidential campaigns of Paul's father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

"By labeling every scary thing as an 'imminent' and/or 'vital' threat to the United States, our politicians - and particularly the executive branch - convince Americans to back military interventions into situations which pose no immediate threat to our safety and unquestionably are incapable of threatening our existence as a nation," she wrote in an article published in The Blaze.

Other recent works published by Defense Priorities argue that arming Syrian rebels helps the Islamic State more than American interests; that additional sanctions on North Korea will primary harm innocent civilians; and that continued future military engagement in the Middle East will not stop terrorism.

"Flatly stated, evidence confirms the employment of lethal military power that we have relied on for the past fifteen years has failed to protect America," Davis wrote in a monograph, "The Days of Perpetual Wars Must End."

Another, by senior fellow Charles Peña, a longtime defense policy analysis, argues that "instead of focusing our security efforts on military intervention abroad, we would be better off with improved intelligence capabilities (particularly human intelligence rather than widespread technological eavesdropping) and being able to know who is trying to come into the country who might pose a threat."

In addition to research, King said, the Defense Priorities Foundation will aim to highlight the work of others.

"There are a lot of great ideas out there. What we want to do is amplify the voices that are challenging the status quo that is dominant on foreign policy," he said, which will include holding events and partnering with other organizations. "I'll give you an example. There is a buildup in Iraq and Syria operating off a 15-year-old authorization for the use of military force, but there is not much debate about that."

A spokesperson for the Charles Koch Institute told POLITICO that the institute and the Charles Koch Foundation are not providing financial support to the new think tank but "have a great interest in foreign policy and its impact on our country's well-being. ... We're glad to see groups like Defense Priorities engaging in this conversation as well."

In addition to Ruger, several other policy experts associated with the Koch network are working with the new organization.

"There is certainly a dearth of what I would call restraint-minded foreign policy work inside the Beltway, which is somewhat surprising because it is pretty well represented in the academy outside the Beltway," said Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a senior adviser at the new think tank. (Koch has been a major backer of Cato.)

Preble added: "The dominant view in D.C. is that the U.S. is responsible for the security of the entire planet. There is great confidence in the ability of the U.S. military to shape the international system - it is bipartisan, left and right, it is the dominant paradigm. But gee, some of the things we have done in the last few decades haven't worked out that well."

Another Cato recruit to Defense priorities is Doug Bandow, a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

"Whether you are talking about an NFL team or a government agency, you have to make judgments based a sober analysis of results," said Davis, the retired Army officer. "By that standard, U.S. foreign policy has failed abysmally over the past few decades."